An elderly woman races to pick up her ringing landline.
“Hello?” she says.
“Yeah, it’s Bill,” the caller says in an urgent voice. “Listen, don’t tell Mom and Dad, they’ll be so mad at me. But I’m in Mexico and got caught with a little bit of marijuana. Could you possibly spare $5,000 to bail me out?”
If this scenario sounds familiar to you, you’re not alone. It’s been so widely used — and successful — that there’s a name for it. “It’s the ‘grandparent scam,’ ” said Laura Mosqueda, MD, interim dean of the Keck School of Medicine of USC and director of the National Center on Elder Abuse. Victims filed nearly 354,000 fraud complaints about imposters to the Federal Trade Commission in 2015 alone, and many of them were for phone scams targeting the elderly.
Elderly people at risk
Changes that can occur in aging brains means many elderly people are at risk for the grandparent scam and other financial swindles, according to recent research from the Keck School of Medicine.
The problem lies in changes that can happen to two parts of the brain, said Duke Han, PhD, associate professor of family medicine (clinical scholar). Han has studied the elderly brain extensively at USC and the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
One part of the brain, the medial temporal lobe, allows us to project an image of ourselves into the future, Han said. It’s the part of the brain associated with memory. The other part, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, processes value, decision-making and fear. Elderly people are susceptible to changes in both parts of the brain, Han said. Connections between both parts can weaken over time too.
Han and his colleagues theorize this could be one reason the elderly are more susceptible to scams. A woman caught in the grandparent scam would be less likely than a younger person to imagine herself being bilked. Changes in the elderly brain also could keep her from seeing the swindle for what it is.
Professional scammers are always on the lookout for new victims, Mosqueda said. “I’ve been at home visits where every 60 to 90 seconds the phone is ringing, and the table is loaded with sweepstakes,” she said.
Other elderly people fall victim closer to home. A caregiver, whether hired or related, seeks to use their power over someone frail and possibly confused to extort money and property. The most at risk, for either type of scam, are people in the early stages of dementia, Mosqueda explained.
But there are safeguards the elderly and their family can take before trouble comes calling:
- Keep contact information updated. Grandparents should have family phone numbers on hand so they can easily and quickly reach relatives to verify a story.
- Increase your financial literacy, Han recommends. This could mean taking a course at a community college or senior center; reading books or articles on money management; or watching relevant television shows and movies. According to his studies with Rush colleagues, seniors who are more financially literate have better structural and functional connections in the brain.
- Stay alert about the latest senior scams by checking in at the National Center on Elder Abuse.
Mosqueda advises family members to protect their older relatives before senior scams can happen:
- Open lines of communication with older relatives about finances, and keep those lines open.
- Make sure elderly parents have a trusted, vetted list of workers (such as plumbers and electricians) so they don’t find themselves slapped with a bill that has “spiraled out of control.”
- Watch for any changes in memory or math skills, which are red flags for financial vulnerability.
“There’s a lot we can do to protect ourselves,” Mosqueda said. “If we work on prevention, then it’s not an emergency.”
— Constance Sommer